The global pandemic caused by the coronavirus is likely to deepen the impasse at the heart of Venezuelan politics, setting off an even more extreme humanitarian disaster than the one the country has been experiencing for the past three years. For fifteen months, an implacable deadlock has seen the de facto regime of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, which maintains tight autocratic control over the security forces but has lost recognition from most of the international community, face off against the notional government of Juan Guaidó, which enjoys international recognition and real domestic popularity but has no meaningful power on the ground.
Throughout this period, Maduro’s goal has been to force the international community to deal with him—however unpalatable they may find his regime—by creating problems for his neighbors that demand a rapid response, such as setting off massive refugee flows and harboring Colombian guerrilla groups. Guaidó, for his part, has sought to convince Maduro’s supporters to break ranks, hoping to provoke enough fissures to cause the governing coalition to collapse from within.
The coronavirus pandemic has led both sides to double down on these strategies. Maduro has deepened autocratic control over the nation, cracking down on people seen outside without a face mask and ratcheting up the frequency of police raids and intimidation tactics against opposition political activists. His message is blunt: he runs things around here, and anyone hoping to influence the course of the pandemic in Venezuela will have no choice but to acquiesce to his power. Similarly, Guaidó has turned to his strongest asset—his solid support in Washington and throughout the democratic world—to propose, in conjunction with the U.S. Department of State, a new national emergency government. In effect, this proposal would create a power-sharing executive that would exclude both himself and Maduro from a five-member Council of State to allow international sanctions to be lifted and pursue a consensual response to the crisis. In parallel, the U.S. Department of Justice has indicted Maduro and around two dozen of his top officials on drug trafficking charges, offering rewards for their capture. In effect, Guaidó and the United States are (once again) entreating Maduro’s top generals to depose him and share power with them.
Efforts to provoke fissures in Maduro’s ranks have been at the center of Guaidó’s approach all along. So far, Maduro has managed to resist these maneuvers through the power of fear. A sprawling, Cuban-backed, KGB-style state security system has pursued mass surveillance not merely of opposition figures but also of regime supporters, tracking down and eradicating any hint of dissent. Military counterintelligence prisons are bulging at the seams with both uniformed prisoners and their family members. Maduro’s forces routinely use torture to extract confessions, yielding a stream of names who can then be arrested and tortured in turn. The resulting climate of fear and mutual suspicion inside the security services has proven strong enough to forestall the kinds of defections that Washington and Guaidó alike had been hoping for.
Could this time be different? It is imaginable. In March, Saudi Arabia’s oil price war with Russia managed to do in two weeks what the United States had been trying unsuccessfully to do for two years: shut down the Venezuelan oil industry. For the first time since the 1920s, Venezuela’s leaders are piecing together a fiscal strategy without significant oil income. Meanwhile, U.S. sanctions have crippled Venezuela’s ability to produce or import gasoline, leading to unprecedented fuel shortages that wreak havoc with internal distribution efforts of food, medicine, personal protective equipment, or anything else. The regime is, in other words, under unprecedented and extreme levels of pressure. It is not unthinkable that it will buckle. But that is not the most likely outcome.
The Maduro regime has faced steadily mounting pressure since oil prices first began to fall in 2014. Its demise has been wrongly forecast with each increase of the pressure gauge. In that time, it has developed strong capabilities to defend itself through the use of state violence. The regime has learned to match each tightened notch of the fiscal belt with new repressive measures that raise the cost of dissent ever higher for those in a position to overthrow it: the men in uniform. It will certainly redouble its repressive violence, and it likely will succeed in keeping control.
That the cost of success will be a public health catastrophe does not seem to faze Maduro or his cronies. Venezuela’s vulnerability to the coronavirus is hard to overstate: the country’s public health system already effectively collapsed years ago. Thousands of doctors and nurses have fled the country in recent years, escaping starvation wages. Chronic malnutrition leaves huge swaths of the population at risk for fatal complications. By one recent estimate, the entire country of 28 million has just seventy-two working intensive care beds, most of which are in military facilities or private clinics catering to the state-connected elite.1 Overcrowded detention facilities are all potential hot spots for infection. A runaway coronavirus pandemic in Venezuela would be a uniquely grisly affair.
The consequences will travel. Both Colombia and Brazil have closed their official border crossings in response to the pandemic, but neither can effectively patrol their long and remote Venezuelan borders. The Colombian government faces a thriving business along remote illegal border crossings (trochas) whose profitability is only enhanced by the official closures. Venezuelans will continue to pour across the border to the northern Colombian department of Norte de Santander, undermining Bogota’s efforts to suppress the virus.
The impact will be measured in body bags on both sides of the border. Maduro has made it clear that he does not mind ruling over a pile of corpses. Indeed, he has turned his indifference toward the suffering of Venezuelans into a key strategic asset in his approach to retaining power. There is no reason to expect him to change tactics now.
Francisco Toro is the chief content officer of the Group of 50 and a global opinion columnist for the Washington Post.
1 According to a source in the healthcare sector.